Patents, Pills, and the Press

The Rise and Fall of the Global HIV/AIDS Medicines Crisis in the News

by Thomas Owen (Author)
©2015 Monographs XII, 217 Pages
Series: Global Crises and the Media, Volume 15


HIV/AIDS is a global health crisis of unprecedented proportions. Afflicting millions worldwide, its social, political, economic, and ethical dimensions have rendered explicit the vast inequalities of our «negatively globalized planet». Since the late 1990s, a major feature of the crisis has been the dispute over intellectual property protection and medicines access.
In this book, Thomas Owen examines the mediatization of this dispute. Weaving together contemporary media theory and interdisciplinary research with computer-assisted news analysis and interviews with journalists and civil society campaigners, the book illuminates the intersecting constitutive relationships between global crises, global governance, and global media. In a context of changing media technologies, logics, and practices, this book observes where the mediatized conflict surrounding global medicines access has at times consolidated elite political economic power, and at other times provided civil society campaigners their greatest opportunities for global social change.
With an interdisciplinary approach, this book is suitable for courses on global media communication and global journalism, as well as advanced undergraduate and postgraduate courses in public health communication, political communication, social movement studies, and international relations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. The Crisis Meets the Media: ACT UP vs. Al Gore 1999
  • Chapter 3. Contested Crisis Definitions: Patents vs. Poverty
  • Chapter 4. Contested Crisis Definitions: Global vs. National
  • Chapter 5. The “Golden Window” and the “Unsustainable Stalemate”
  • Chapter 6. Inside a Successful Civil Society Media Campaign: Perspectives from Communicators and Journalists
  • Chapter 7. 2003–2013: Third Wave AIDS Activism, TRIPS-Plus, and the New Media Ecology
  • Chapter 8. Conclusion
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


This book began in Spring 2006 in the hills outside of Barcelona. It was there that I met a friend, recently returned from his work with an NGO in Geneva, who first introduced me to the global crisis of patent protection, trade agreements, and HIV/AIDS medicines access. The story my friend told me was incredible. A coalition of transnational civil society health groups, he said, had taken on the major multinational pharmaceutical companies over their patent protections. The international mainstream media favourably represented the civil society groups’ cause and pharmaceutical companies suffered a major public relations disaster. Ultimately, he said, the mediatised dispute led to an alteration of global medicine patent rules, and millions of HIV-positive people began receiving affordable life-saving treatment.

The story was incredible. In particular, everything I had learned about media, activism and political economy up to that point told me that it was highly improbable and against the usual trends of mainstream media. Was it, then, indeed true? If so, how did this occur and what can we learn from it? And if it is not true then why is the story being repeated by people such as my friend, recited as an emblematic tale of how activist campaigns can indeed exert power in the news media to the detriment of their corporate rivals? ← ix | x →

The meeting in Barcelona was the spark of inspiration to research this issue. In the 8 years since, I have produced a PhD thesis, several articles, and, ultimately, this book, exploring the topic. Along the way the research has been gently guided by many capable hands, without whom it never would have occurred. Before proceeding, I must pay homage to those responsible for this work.

First, I thank Nico Tyabji for the conversation in Barcelona and for setting me on the path. Second, I thank Verica Rupar for leading that path towards university research, and Elspeth Tilley, Slavka Antonova, Ian Goodwin, Donald Matheson, and Libby Lester for guiding the doctoral thesis to completion. In particular, I am eternally grateful to Sean Phelan, my thesis supervisor, for his unwavering scholarly rigour, compassionate mentoring, constant inspiration, and continued encouragement. I also thank Naomi Collins and the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship for funding the PhD research and Massey University for providing it a home.

This book, however, bears only partial resemblance to the thesis before it, and many people have played considerable roles in ensuring the research has continued and developed. In particular, I thank Mia Tay and Quaker Peace and Service Aotearoa New Zealand for funding the book through the Loxley Award, and Marvin Hubbard and the Testimonies Committee for providing further funding through the Testimonies grant. Mia sadly passed away before this book was completed, and the world is a less cheerful place without her. Her indefatigable pursuit of social justice inspires each of its pages. Thank you also to Elizabeth Thompson for pointing me in the right direction and the Yearly Meeting of Aotearoa New Zealand for keeping me there.

I thank series editor Simon Cottle for his encouragement, feedback, and insightful comments on early drafts of the book. I also thank Mary Savigar and Peter Lang publishers for their support throughout and expedient communication and management of the publishing process. I thank Auckland University of Technology and Victoria University of Wellington for supporting my writing of the book while in their employ, in particular Jo Smith for her general support for global crisis media scholarship (mauri ora!). I also thank Di Parsons, Graeme Bassett, Brian and Clara Lewthwaite, and Avon and Simon Lookmire for opening space in their homes for me to write. I enthusiastically thank Sue Pugmire for keeping the fires of indignation alive and a sharp eye upon contemporary trade deals. Thank you also to Newtown Rocksteady and whānau for supporting the kaupapa.

To my family, I thank you all, in particular Brooke, Michael, William, Brian, Clara, and Kim. To Verna, I thank you for instilling in me a passion ← x | xi → for health care and compassionate healing. To Brad, I thank you for always pushing me to ask why—especially of those in power. Above all, I thank Rhea Mae and Ts’ëla Rae for inspiring me every day, and for everything else.

Finally, I thank all of the women and men working for governments, NGOs, corporations, and supranational institutions who tirelessly dedicate their efforts to providing greater health care for all in both the developed and developing world. I thank all of the journalists, editors, and communicators who inform the world of our many global health crises and point the ways towards how we may respond to them. In particular, I thank those who generously gave their time to speak to me during the research for this book.

Above all, I thank those people living in communities where global health crises are most keenly felt who refuse to become victims of global processes and have instead taken control of their fates and demanded a better, more equitable world with access to health care for all. It is from you that this book has been inspired and to you it is now dedicated. May history recognise your efforts and bear fruit from your struggle.

Thomas Owen

Auckland, New Zealand

January 2015

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HIV/AIDS is major crisis that has reshaped the global public health landscape (Brandt, 2013). According to Jean Comaroff (2007, p. 197), it is the “signal pandemic of the global here and now,” one that has “exacerbated existing economic and moral divides on an ever more planetary scale.” Within the vast reach of social processes HIV/AIDS touches upon, the specific issue of patent protection and medicines access has emerged as the “most critical international AIDS story of our time” (Russell, 2003, p. 38), and a “totemic problem in global health” (Williams, 2012, p. S127). In particular, the inequality in global medicines access—where those most in need of treatment have the least resources to acquire it—has illuminated the contradiction between the “extraordinary scientific progress” in the development of HIV/AIDS medicines and the “abysmal lack of social solidarity” in the global distribution of accessible treatment (Klug, 2008, p. 208).

This book explores how the global crisis of HIV/AIDS medicines access and patent protection was defined, contested, and reformulated in mainstream international news media from the mid-1990s to the present day—with particular focus on the period of heightened media attention from 1999–2001. Through a combination of corpus-assisted discourse analysis of news content, ← 1 | 2 → personal perspectives from journalists and civil society communicators, and examination of the wider political and economic processes shaping medicines access, the book illustrates the broad phases and key moments in the mediatisation of the global crisis.

At the core of the HIV/AIDS medicines access and patent protection dispute are the international rules governing medicines production and trade. In particular, intellectual property rights (IPRs) determine how long new medicines will be protected from market competition—establishing both the length of patent protections and the extent to which mechanisms may be used to breach protection and copy medicines. Since the mid-1990s, medicines IPRs have been embedded within World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements, mandating minimum protection requirements for all member countries. Many countries have also signed bilateral and regional free trade agreements over the past two decades, in most cases prescribing stronger IPR protections than the WTO (Baird, 2013; Sell, 2011).

It is into this context that the global HIV/AIDS medicines access and patent protection crisis exists. Since 1996, Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) has been widely available in minority world wealthy countries (Schwartländer, Grubb, & Perriëns, 2006). While HAART does not cure AIDS, it dramatically reduces the viral load in patients, effectively converting HIV/AIDS “from a lethal disease to chronic illness” (‘t Hoen, 2009, p. ix). However, the high prices of HAART have historically rendered them inaccessible to the majority of HIV/AIDS sufferers living in less affluent countries.


XII, 217
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (June)
Al Gore 1990s third wave
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XII, 217 pp.

Biographical notes

Thomas Owen (Author)

Thomas Owen (PhD, Massey University) is Lecturer in Communication Studies at Auckland University of Technology. He is a recipient of the Loxley Award for peace research, and a Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellow. His work has appeared in The International Journal of Press/Politics, Critical Discourse Studies, and The International Journal of Communication.


Title: Patents, Pills, and the Press
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233 pages